Diver Who Loved to Read
Fight Nor Flight
Anderson makes mincemeat of class distinctions.
He was a high school dropout from Chicagos roughest schools
whose life was saved by joining the navy. But he wasnt raised in
poverty by uneducated parents his relatives worked for the Board of
Education in Chicago. His mother was an accountant with Blue Cross who
loved math and drilled it into Anthony. By age four he could add and
subtract, and was considered so smart he started first grade a year early.
He now lives in West Seattle. He owns a nice starter home with his
partner, Shelbi. They drive a Land Rover (with a rear compartment big
enough for their two Great Danes) and eat protein-heavy diets and can talk
about all the new restaurants and books like any other bourgeois
bohemian couple. Very up-and-coming middle class.
Anthonys job, however is in the marine construction business. He
works the night shift on the retrofit for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. He is
a commercial diver, one of the few black divers in the country. He puts on
a dry suit and a huge helmet and descends 150 feet to the bottom of Puget
Sound for four hours at a time, where he operates an underwater blow torch
on the new footings for the suspension bridge while battling the currents.
For such dangerous, specialized work, the money is very good. Its far
more than his job its his calling, his passion, his dream come
true, and it didnt come easily.
Just three years ago, he was drifting, unemployed. He lived out of
a Chevy Suburban parked on the street. Then he slept on a mattress in a
guys garage over on Pigeon Hill. Even then, he knew what his calling
was. Hed been to dive school in Seattle. Hed done his two-year
apprenticeship down in Louisiana working on oil rigs. But he couldnt
break in to union work in the Northwest. Knowing your calling is not to be
confused with succeeding at it. The last three years, hes learned what
it takes to get from the former to the latter. He cant quite put it
into words, like Stephen Lyons or can he?
Tentatively, he summarized, Its about confidence. With me,
its always been about confidence. When I approach a situation with
confidence, I lean in, I figure it out, I succeed. When I lack confidence,
I pull back and withdraw. My confidence was taken away from me when I was
a boy. Sadness flashed across his eyes. A haunting memory. He said,
I remember myself being studious and inventive as a kid. Then it was
His aunt was a secretary for Reverend Jesse Jacksons PUSH
Coalition. Anthonys elders had devoted themselves to changing the
system, but in the meantime they mostly complained about it. It had an
undesirable effect on young Anthony. It taught him to imitate their
outrage, their finger-pointing. They tried to mold him with tough love;
they tried to teach him to endure any situation, such as in ninth grade,
when his mom moved in with her father and Anthony enrolled in a new high
school. It was a very rough, bad school. Being new and a year
younger, Anthony was repeatedly bullied and beat up by the older students.
His Mom met twice with the school counselor to discuss her sons
discipline problems, but she wouldnt transfer him to another school.
Youve got to learn to stick it out, she told him.
Instead, the message he got was, she simply doesnt care about
He skipped school the next week, hoping to avoid another beating.
He got one anyway, when his Mom found out he was hiding at home rather
than sitting in class. His grandfather and aunt disciplined him physically
to teach him the most important lesson they could you cant
skip school. He remembers sitting by the window, watching them come up
the walkway, knowing what he was in for. (Im saving you the details.)
That was my giving-up-on-them point, Anthony
said. In a way, it was liberating. When suddenly my grandfather was in
on it, for the first time I understood why my mom and aunt were always
disciplining me that way. Because he taught it to them. And it had
been taught to him, generation down to generation, certainly all the way
back since slavery. I couldnt forgive them, but it helped to have this
Six years in the navy gave him more perspective. Teamed with guys
from all over the country, with a skinny white guy from Texas as his
bunkmate, Anthony learned that the way he was raised was only one way, not
the only way. It broke down the untruths I grew up with, he said.
They traveled to Japan, Italy, Cuba, and throughout the United States.
Is the contribution the armed services makes by
broadening young peoples horizons underappreciated? It certainly was by
me, when I started this book. My father was a marine, but when he enrolled
at eighteen he had other choices. A lot of young people dont have those
other choices. If theyre not going to college, theres really no
other way out no other way to transcend their circumstances. My
interviews and correspondence with a dozen grateful young soldiers made
this clear. Didnt they complain about the low pay and regimented
bureaucracy? Absolutely. But they were still grateful. As Anthony Anderson
said, If I didnt go into the military, I would have been a broke,
One day two navy divers came to Anthonys unit and
talked about what they did. Days later he caught a special on the
Discovery Channel about deep sea diving, and he could see what those two
guys had described. From that day on, Anthony was hooked. He requested to
become a navy diver. He was still a bit of a troublemaker; his request was
denied repeatedly, fueling bitterness until he finally accepted that his
disobedience and unruliness had consequences. When his tour ended, he
moved to Seattle for dive school.
What most appealed to you about it? I asked.
The total concentration required. The 100% total focus,
cant-slip-up carefulness. That has always been its appeal and still is.
When I focus I feel clear minded. When I dont focus, Ive always been
haunted by a dark shadowy blur.
A dark shadowy blur?
Is it something in particular?
No, just a feeling, like just outside your vision.
After dive school he spent two years training on oil rigs in
Louisiana, a right-to-work state. When he came back to Seattle, he got a
job dockside but the old boys network wouldnt let him into the
For a long time, I believed it was racism, just as I did when
the navy denied my requests. I had been taught in my youth to see racism
everywhere, including in situations where that isnt at all what was
going on. Marine construction really is an old boys network. Its
kind of a hazing process, but race has nothing to do with it. So much of
diving cant be taught in school. You have to earn the trust of older
divers before theyll share their knowhow. So I felt shut out.
Occasionally they would test me send me down into the currents in the
dark with a torch. If you resent being tested, as I did my attitude
gave me no chance. Eventually I was laid off, and I started my downward
In his twenty-nine years, Anthony had never learned to earn a thing
rather than wait in line for it. Hed blamed everyone but himself. When
he ended up unemployed and unable to afford a place to live, an odd kind
of clarity came to him. I need to go through this, he told himself.
I need to figure this out. With a friend, he went kayaking on the
Methow River in Central Washington. He told his friend, just leave me
out here. He spent the next six weeks living in the woods. It wasnt
a contemplative, restorative time. He was there out of sheer stubbornness.
The inclement weather drove him back to Seattle, where he slept in the
Suburban and then that guys garage. Finally, when all the evidence was
in, and obstinacy and umbrage had proven to be of no use at all, he spoke
his first humbling words ever:
Ive got to get some help.
Anthony went to the Veterans Administration Hospital. They
suggested he was using alcohol and pot to deaden his senses. He didnt
deny it. He joined a group. When not there, he went to the library for
shelter. There, among the endless shelves of books, a very unexpected
thing happened. That bright little boy, studious and inventive, was still
alive inside him, ready to come back out. Underneath all those cloaks of
trained helplessness was a smart kid who loved to read. First he read
everything there was to know about the science of childhood development.
He read book after book on psychology, depression, and Attention Deficit
Then he read everything that might help him diving. I studied it
like a college course. He put himself through a course on steel on
all the mechanical properties of different alloys, understanding for the
first time what kind of steel was appropriate for what kind of job. Then
he taught himself civil engineering. Then land erosion and oceanography,
because some diving work required surveying erosion damage on beachheads.
He also taught himself plumbing.
For the first time I was knowledgeable. When I went back to
work, I was prepared. Having all that information in my mind it gave
His attitude was the biggest difference. I used to have this
fight-or-flight response to any conflict. Neither option served me well.
Stuck on a barge, you cant run anywhere. I learned to silence that
instinct, and resolve just to work it out.
For example, there is a kind of class stereotyping in the trade.
Some of the guys have been to college, but around the barge they slip back
into a blue collar dialect. In order to be accepted as one of them,
Anthony had to pretend he was the kind of southern boy they all met down
in the Gulf when doing their apprenticeships. He had to stoop to ghetto
talk, yo brother, when hed never talked that way in his
life and wasnt very good at it. He hated doing it but it broke the ice
and now they are getting to know the real Anthony.
Another example has been his relationship with Shelbi, his partner.
Fight-or-flight would only destroy the good thing theyve created.
There are nights I just need to go for a drive, he admits. But
theyre far more infrequent. Finding each other began a new life for
both of them. Shelbi married young and divorced young. Her past seems like
a bad dream she once had. Theyve been given a second chance; they
I get it now. I get what Anthony is trying to teach me. There is no
fight-or-flight at the bottom of the sea. When problems arise, they are
dealt with as challenges, addressed with total concentration. Down at the
bottom of the sea, Anthony is honing his coping mechanisms, honing his
ability to deal with lifes frustrations. So that he can succeed as a
diver yes, but also so he can hang on to his relationship, this second
You might have in your memory banks an image of the Tacoma Narrows
suspension bridge. Its one of the most famous disaster films ever.
Taken in 1940, the grainy black and white footage captures the concrete
road of the Narrows snapping like a whip in a windstorm and twisting into
a semi-helix before falling into Puget Sound. The wreckage of the old
bridge is apparently still down there. The bridge was rebuilt and now,
sixty years later, Anthony is part of the retrofit team so that it can
withstand the awesome destructive forces of nature. Just as he an Shelbi
are a team learning to withstand the dark shadowy blur that would tear
apart any relationship, or destroy any spirit.
Now when I want to run from my problems, I think about Anthony,
hanging on with one hand at the bottom of the sea.
Hang on, hang on.